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Nostalgia yields travel remedy

Matt Pommer

Seemingly new ideas often trigger nostalgia.

Consider the push for improved rail service from Chicago to Milwaukee and Madison. It’s part of a proposed

Chicago rail hub package being pushed by Midwestern governors, including Jim Doyle.

Some suggest the governors are trying to make sure this part of the country gets improved rail service.

Critics suggest it amounts to a big-time boondoggle in the midst of an economic downturn.

Many remember an era before jet planes and interstate highways. It was an era when a passenger train brought a sense of adventure, especially to young people. My hometown near Pittsburgh was on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Those trains were exciting to me. They could take you to places like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City. Vacation time meant a week at a cabin on Lake Erie, and my dad would take me each night that week to watch the New York Central passenger trains whiz through town. They had exciting names like the 20th Century Limited. The best Christmas gift ever was a Lionel train set.

My wife took the Chicago and Northwestern from Green Bay to Evanston, Ill., to go to nursing school. My family took the train from Pittsburgh to Green Bay for our wedding. On the last day of Milwaukee Road service between Madison and Chicago, our two young daughters and I were on the final trains on that route.

We qualify as a train family even if the Lionel trains have moved on to a new generation.

That was nearly four decades ago, when people weren’t in the hurry they are today. Improved rail service from Milwaukee and Racine to Chicagoland appears to have significant support. Perhaps General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee could amount to a third Chicagoland airport. It certainly would help boost real estate values as those in suburban Chicago find a lower cost of living in Wisconsin.

The idea of high-speed rail service between Madison and Milwaukee isn’t new. In 1985 a state task force floated the idea of a high-speed rail line to link the Milwaukee and Madison campuses of the University of Wisconsin.

It didn’t get much attention, and critics suggested the task force seemed nostalgic for passenger trains.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, noted there already is efficient service between Milwaukee and Madison — by bus.

It’s good service, but it lacks the nostalgia of passenger trains.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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